MONTPELIER — The Vermont’s General Assembly took two hours from committee meetings and hearings Wednesday morning to hear about water quality from citizens, scientists, businesspeople and a representative of Vermont’s dairy farmers.
The key message heard was that the public has coalesced around the call for water quality improvements and there may be no better time for the Vermont Legislature to take action on it.
Arriving for a rare event, which was sponsored by the Messenger, legislators were greeted with 3- by 5-foot photo images of Lake Champlain, Lake Carmi, and the Rock River taken this summer by Messenger staff and area residents. The photos showed bright green water where it should have been blue.
The chamber was also filled with visitors, many of them from Franklin County, including students from St. Albans City School.
Denise Smith, executive director of Friends of Northern Lake Champlain, described for legislators how blue-green algae in Lake Carmi lasted until the lake froze over.
While the photos on display gave legislators a visual of what the water looked like, they couldn’t capture “the stench that emanates from the lake for days on end as our lake slowly dies,” she said.
“Waterways,” she reminded the legislators, “are held in public trust.”
Introducing Gov. Peter Shumlin, Smith spoke of his visit during the St. Albans Raid commemoration last fall. Smith, who attended in Civil War era clothing, said the governor told her “he would do whatever I needed him to do for Lake Champlain,” if she came to the statehouse in costume.
As she said it, Smith donned her 19th Century hat, complete with veil and looked at the governor, provoking applause from the legislators, who continued to applaud as Shumlin came to the podium.
“In Vermont,” Shumlin said, “it’s the grassroots that get us all together to do the right thing.”
Citing the revitalization of St. Albans City, Shumlin said, “We can do remarkable things.”
Vermont can also do remarkable things with the lake, he implied, with the same kind of cooperation, partnerships and vision.
However, Shumlin identified three barriers to cleaning up Vermont’s waters. The first is the idea that the shallow areas, such as Missisquoi Bay can’t be cleaned.
Shumlin spoke of when the federal government first required that town dumps, many of which were along rivers, be closed and that the waste instead go into lined landfills. At that point, some said, “We can’t take out what we’ve done. It won’t make any difference,” reminded Shumlin.
But the rivers did recover. The same thing happened when the federal government mandated sewage treatment, he noted. “When you stop dumping pollutants into the water, it recovers,” he said.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is re-examining the limits on pollution in Lake Champlain. If the state cannot demonstrate a willingness to provide the resources and staffing necessary to reduce the amount of phosphorous going into the lake, EPA will.
“We’ve got two ways to do this,” Shumlin told legislators. “The smart Vermont way or the EPA way. Take your pick. There is no third way.”
EPA’s authority is limited to those with pollution discharge permits, particularly wastewater treatment facilities, which account for roughly three percent of the phosphorous in Lake Champlain. “We have the power to get the 97 percent,” Shumlin said.
“Change, rhetoric, happy talk is easy until you have to pay,” said Shumlin.
Some argue the funds to clean the lake should be taken from existing resources. To them, Shumlin said, “Go find $15 million to $20 million in addition to the $112 (million).” The state needs to cut roughly $112 million to create a balanced budget for next year.
To raise funds for water quality work, the administration proposed a tax on fertilizer and an annual fee on impervious surfaces in the Lake Champlain basin, which has met with legislative opposition.
“Come up with your plan that raised the same amount of money. Try it. See how popular it is,” Shumlin told the legislators.
“We’ve never had more consensus about clean water than we have right now,” Shumlin said. The state should take advantage of that and act, he suggested.
The consensus was evident in the range of speakers who addressed the general assembly. Including several from Franklin County.
Montgomery resident John Little, of the Missisquoi River Basin Association, asked legislators to stand in answer to a series of questions about having taken part in boating on Vermont’s waters, drinking from Vermont’s public water systems, and living along the state’s shorelines. Nearly everyone in the room did so.
Swanton’s Hank Lambert, former director of Vermont’s local roads program, recommended the state invest in lining steep slopes with stone. The stone captures sediment that would otherwise runoff and reduces roadside erosion, protecting the road. Towns, however, often don’t make the investment in stone lining because of the upfront costs, he explained. “Making that upfront investment now could help limit pollutants entering our precious waters,” Lambert said.
Jay Stenger, of Jay Peak Resort, and Monique Oxender, chief sustainability officer for Keurig Green Mountain, spoke about the importance of clean water to their businesses. Keurig has pledged $5 million to efforts to improve the quality of Vermont’s waters.
Tom Torti, of the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce, told legislators that the waters of Vermont are as important to Vermont’s economy as major employers such as IBM and Mylan Technologies, Inc.
“Vermont itself is a brand,” said Torti. Vermont’s image as a socially and environmentally responsible place brings both tourists and businesses here, he argued.
“The number one reason people cite for not making a return trip (to Vermont) is the degradation of the water,” Torti said, discussing the thousands of anglers who visit each year.
Leon Berthiaume, general manager of the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery, spoke about the support of Vermont’s dairy farmers for clean water. If after receiving technical assistance and support, farmers are not doing the right thing, then there should be enforcement, said Berthiaume.
Dairy adds $2.5 billion annually to Vermont’s economy, and 15 percent of Vermont’s land is in dairying, said Berthiaume.
“We should consider water quality and food production simultaneously,” said Berthiaume.
Farmers need technical assistance to design solutions for their fields, as the practices needed on each field vary based on such factors as soil type, slope, and land use, Berthiaume explained.
“We need to invest in our future and water quality is a priority,” he said.
Ron Rhodes, a Vermonter who works on water quality issues in the Connecticut River, quoted the late actress Katherine Hepburn, who called the river, “The world’s most beautifully landscaped cesspool.”
While water quality has improved since then, water quality is still a challenge in the river itself, and in Long Island Sound, where nitrogen from the river is contributing to “dead zones” created by blue-green algae.
“We must do more and we must do it now before our river’s ability to support aquatic life… is lost,” said Rhodes. Forty-one percent of Vermont’s lands drain into the Connecticut.
House Speaker Shap Smith began the morning by telling his colleagues a water quality bill “is part of what we must do this year.”